Musical Chairs, Rambo and Karaoke

Having traveled by boat to Cambodia, we took a pass on the popular – and long – boat trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and opted for the cheap bus instead. We figured we could make better use of the extra $4 per person.

When we booked our tickets, the agent from the bus company whipped out tickets and checked us off on a seat manifest that was virtually empty. It appeared like we’d have the bus to ourselves.

Instead, at the moment of departure, Cambodians seemed to descend from the heavens and packed the bus to almost fully booked. On the way, we stopped frequently to take on more people. Where to put them? No problem. Each time a new passenger appeared, the driver’s assistant disappeared to the luggage compartment and pulled out a plastic chair. Soon, the center aisle of the bus was full of passengers of all ages – kids on laps, mothers and babies, grandmothers, young men and old – every delegation from Cambodian society had a representative in the middle aisle.

Each time someone called out for the bus to stop, the voice inevitably came from someone in the back. A sort of musical chairs meets three-card monty ensued. Everyone in the middle aisle picked up his chair, a few people disappeared (under seats?), a few went outside so that the person could exit, then everyone reappeared for middle aisle formation, plastic chairs in hand. Pieces of fruit were exchanged, a diaper or two was changed, and everyone settled back in. One person would get a real seat, and we were off again. Musical chairs, Cambodian style.

Our bus also featured a television which kicked off with a Rambo-style Cambodian movie. Even without understanding a word of Khmer, this much was clear – the brave Cambodian fighters took on the better-equipped evil Vietnamese forces, beat them, and ran off with the girl. The violence and gore in this movie made Western war movies look like “Finding Nemo.” To the delight of the Cambodian passengers, our remaining brain cells were mopped up with Cambodian karaoke videos and comedy shows.

While in Siem Reap, we ran into a Dutch couple from our guest house in Phnom Penh. They had taken the more expensive VIP bus and we wondered if it included the same entertainment.

Their experience: “We hit a cow. The bus driver and passengers put it in the luggage compartment.”

Welcome to Cambodia!

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